Tips for writing a book over 4-month maternity leave
June 15, 2022 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm signing on to write a 50K non-fiction book biography of sorts over my maternity leave, which will be 4th months long. Looking for allll of the tips!

This will be my second child, my first will be at daycare during the week, and on weekends my husband and parents will be around to help support. Would love any tips you have for structure, routine, expectations, emotions, etc.!

I'll note that at this time I am not considering NOT doing it, barring some major unforeseen circumstance. It's an amazing opportunity and I consider myself lucky that it falls over my maternity leave, as opposed to juggling a newborn AND full-time work.

Thank you in advance!
posted by knownassociate to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'd keep your expectations very low even knowing that this isn't your first time. Not all babies will allow that level of free time, even if your first one did. By all means give it a shot, but have a fall-back plan or just be willing to accept the possibility of not writing this book within this time period if you happen to get a newborn that never sleeps, can't be put down and screams all day and all night. It was hard enough to experience that without also being disappointed about not being able to do a big planned project (which would never ever have been remotely possible for me - I had literally zero free time for the first few months since I had to take the chance to sleep at every possible moment to survive), so I would be really cautious about the determination you're showing here (as admirable as it is!).
posted by randomnity at 12:14 PM on June 15, 2022 [14 favorites]

Agreed. I had a year of mat leave, but my kid was an atrocious sleeper, so I couldn't have done any kind of projects even in double the time you've got.

What I'd do, is to line up some sort of childcare, even if it's just for two hours a day, or every couple of days. Enough time that you can get into the zone, not so much that it affects bonding. Can your parents help during the week? Or another relative? Or can you find a childminder who could do short stretches, who is experienced with young babies?

Basically, get a framework in place so that if your kid doesn't sleep, or nap, or both (like my first), you have some kind of way of getting a little time during the day.

And, as randomnity says above, make your peace with the fact that this is a big goal, and that it's ok if you decide you can't or won't do it because it's harming you or your bonding time with your baby.
posted by greenish at 12:42 PM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

I would plan to have someone else available for child care during the times you expect to work. So, either hire someone during the week or reserve your writing time for the weekends when your husband and family can care for the child.
posted by rodneyaug at 12:45 PM on June 15, 2022

Otessa Moshfegh read this book before writing her Booker nominated novel, Eileen.
posted by dobbs at 12:47 PM on June 15, 2022

Hire a nanny. Maternity leave is not a vacation. You will be exhausted, your child may be colicky, as my second was, and the birth may not go as smoothly as you expect.
Sorry to be discouraging, but unless everything goes ideally, this could at the very least, a really bad idea.
posted by Enid Lareg at 1:38 PM on June 15, 2022 [9 favorites]

As a fellow writer I know the temptation you're feeling deep down in my bones. 4 whole months! OF COURSE you want to use it for writing your book. Any writer would dream this dream.

As a fellow mom I want to give you a look and a hug, and say, "Honey, hush." Don't do this to yourself. It's unkind to your body, unkind to your mind, and unkind to your spirit to demand a book from yourself when you have just given birth to your second baby.

You can doodle and moodle and write bits and bobs whenever you feel like it. You can even rely on family or paid childcare providers to carve out writing time every day. My intent here is absolutely NOT to discourage you from taking time away to work on your writing! (Or, god forbid, to shame you for taking time away from the baby.) My intent is to tell you: please do not pressure yourself to produce a book, or 50k words, or anything like that. This is not the time for setting writing goals and drive your inner writer hard. That's all.
posted by MiraK at 3:14 PM on June 15, 2022 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I'm going to take you at your word: You are going to do this. Assuming that, you are left with only one option: you're going to have to math the shit out of this.

Let me propose this schedule for the four months:
- Write one weekend day a week, committing to 4 hours of writing time that day.
- Write four weekdays a week, committing to 2 hours of writing time a day, 8 hours total per week
- This is a total of 12 hours of writing per week
- Over the course of 16 weeks, this will be 192 total hours of writing time.
Note that we will translate this to a committed word count below, because words are more important than hours.

You want to write 50,000 words. Let me suggest that you dedicate:
- 16 hours to outlining your book. If you can do this now, pre-baby-brain, do it.
- 16 hours to writing the ending of your book. Figure out how your book ends and write this first and strong.
- 16 hours to writing the beginning of your book. Write this next.
This plan allows you to bring quality time to the most important parts of the book. Fuck the middle.*

You then have 144 hours left. You'll have less than 50,000 to write at this point, but let's be conservative and assume 50,000 words is still on the table to write. Being conservative gives you time to encounter hiccups. To write 50,000 words in 144 hours, you need to write 347 words per hour.
- On weekend days you need to write 1500 words/5.75 pages (Actual need is 1388 words; I've rounded up)
- On weekdays you need to write 700 words/3 pages per day (Actual need is 694 words; I've rounded up)
- Your weekly word goal is 4164 words.

By the end of the four months you will have a well-formed outline, strong beginning, strong ending, and more than 50k words.

Some strong pieces of advice:
- Do not revise or edit in the four-month writing window. That is not the task.
- Validate your outline with a trusted and informed colleague, editor, or writing buddy.
- Use a writing program that allows you to do a word count. Keep a running list of this.
- Put your pen down each day when you have met your word count. Accidents happen when you try to plow through. Those accidents frequently take the form of burnout, mistakes, and following bad ideas with vigor based on whim.
- Ritualize your writing space. Set it up to work for you before mat leave starts, and leave it set up so all you have to do is sit down.
- Train yourself to pomodoro your time so you don't tax yourself physically at a vulnerable time.
- Have brain food (nuts, raisins, berries, etc.) and water easily available at your workspace.
- Consider a writing focus app/program so you don't get distracted by "research". When you encounter gaps in your knowledge, plug in "***" You'll be able to find those during a second draft or revision. Possibly turn off home internet access while you're writing.

Writing one and not two weekend days a week gives you time to spend with family and gives you a break.
Writing four weekdays a week gives you another day off. You will obvs need this, lol.

*I mean, not really of course, but the middle can sag a bit on this pass.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:55 PM on June 15, 2022 [17 favorites]

I edited and queried a novel during my first maternity leave. I wrote the first draft during the pregnancy. I did not ever find an agent for the novel (though I did get some serious interest, including requests for major rewrites, which I did during the leave) and my oldest's terrible napping made even the editing and revisions very very hard. Every time I'd get into a flow state, WAHH from down the hall. Definitely hire help if this is something you truly want to do.

I think it really did damage my relationship with my baby that I felt like she was sabotaging me and my goals. I remember being just full of desperate rage for big chunks of that leave. I was much less ambitious during my following leaves and was glad of it. Not to say "don't do this" but go in with eyes open about the potential cost.
posted by potrzebie at 4:08 PM on June 15, 2022 [6 favorites]

One thought is to feed formula rather than boob milk. You need chunks of time on weekends when your spouse can take the baby. If you have to feed or pump every hour those chunks of time are going to be impossible.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:20 PM on June 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

The math above is great, but doesn’t have a lot of research time. If you’re doing research or interviewing, definitely plan on childcare. (Although if you’re dealing with documents that are online, I could kind of sort and tag things with a baby strapped on. Not read and absorb necessarily.) I once did an interview on very short notice and my baby (who was older) grabbed a pin and I shut off recording accidentally and it was - not my finest professional moment. If your childcare is mostly on weekends, that can make talking to sources challenging, if they’re speaking in a professional context.

Also RECORD OR DOWNLOAD EVERYTHING, makes notes on everything.

If it is biography I think where baby brain may be an issue is in interpreting facts/documents. Sleep deprivation (and I can’t see how you won’t have some, esp with two kids) can make leaps look really logical that…aren’t. Have a very trusted reader.

One suggestion is work as early in the day as possible. Can husband do all the morning stuff with both kids but breastfeeding? Or can you get up at 4 and then nap with baby later while your older child is at daycare? Because my experience is very like potrzebie’s…If I had to wait for nap/bedtime I would get stressed and that would stress my baby.

Plan on working where your older child is not physically present when you work on weekends. Your older child is going to miss you, is kind of biologically wired to fight for your attention against their sibling, and won’t understand the abstract goal of writing a book. If you are on the other side of a door there will likely be massive meltdowns. If you go out they will be shorter.

Either way, your partner needs to be ready for the response of your older child simultaneously dealing with mum being with new baby, partner also minding new baby, and mum’s work hours being during their family/non-daycare hours. If grands can swoop in for sparkly fun time that may help. You will have to also be prepared for that impact. Plan some connection time.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:04 PM on June 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

An additional hack:
One of your biggest problems with a newborn is going to be keeping mentally oriented and attached to the writing topic at hand. Mostly you're going to be thinking, "What the heck was I supposed to write today?!?"

The weekly word count I suggested above (4164) translates to 16.5 pages a week. When creating your outline, you might consider forcing your chapters/sections into lengths of 16 pages or multiples of 16. If you chunk your topics to match your page output, this could help you retain your sense of where you are.

So for instance, if you were writing about Idris Elba, pp. 1-16 could be the intro, pp. 17-32 could be his musical career and influence, pp. 33-48 could be his film and television roles, pp. 49-80 his youth and family (it's a bigger section so gets 32 pages, aka two weeks of writing), etc. Obviously chapters can run slightly shorter or longer, but this way you at least have thematic goals that correspond to your writing chunks, so you don't have to spend mental time refamiliarizing yourself with the topic du jour. Just a thought.

Also, double check all my math!
posted by cocoagirl at 7:08 PM on June 15, 2022

Best answer: I recently wrote four nonfiction books for a publisher. I had about two months for each book. Two of those books were written during lockdown, so that my wife and kids and I were all crammed together in a small flat while I was writing them. Here's how I did it.

• Similar to Cocoagirl's approach, I started at the end and worked backwards. On day 60, I had to hand in my manuscript. Therefore, on day 55, I needed to have a rough draft so I could spend a few days editing. At the start of my project, I would need 30 days to write my outline. That left 25 days to write the text. My books divided neatly into 100 units (for example, one book is 100 steps you can take to be happier.) Therefore, on my writing days, I needed to write five units every day. And on my outlining days, I outlined five units a day (with a few extra days built into the schedule in case I needed extra research time.)

• On every one of my 25 writing days, I was fanatical about writing my five units. If I had a great day and ended up writing an extra unit, that was fine, and I could let myself write one fewer unit on a future day. But if I didn’t already have an extra unit banked, I had to write five.

• I had a spreadsheet that tracked every unit on my outline so I knew what I had written and what I had left to write.

• I had a very specific set of rituals that I did every time I started to write, which included listening to the same song and starting a pomodoro timer. It was absolutely crucial to launch from this ritual into actual writing; the idea was to condition myself so that the song and the ritual had the Pavlovian effect of putting me into writing mode.

• The modular nature of my book meant that I didn’t have to write it in order. If I was stumped on one unit, I could just jump forward to one that I knew how to write. The downside was that, as I got close to my deadline, I was left with all the hard units. But with the end in sight, I could push through. This may be harder with your biography, but if your outline is detailed enough and fits together well enough, you may be able to jump around, too.

• I explained to my kids that my office was inside my head. In non-lockdown times, if Mummy was at her office and they wanted a snack, they wouldn't call her and demand that she come home to make it. They needed to treat Daddy's office as seriously, even if they couldn't see it. To make that invisible office visible, I wore a baseball cap inside the house whenever I was in work mode. And I made it clear that my job wasn't just typing -- it was thinking, which sometimes takes place away from my desk. So even if I was doing dishes or getting a cup of coffee in the kitchen, if I had my hat on, they needed to pretend I wasn't there. This took a little practice; they'd ask me for help with something and I'd point to my hat and say, "I'm at work. Is this an emergency?" They caught on quickly and were great sports about it. (They're both above age 10. If your first child is still a toddler, you may find this more of a challenge. And obviously the baby isn't going to understand this in the slightest.)

• I also had to train myself. Pre-pandemic, I was the part-time stay-at-home parent and I did about 65% of the childcare. So it took discipline not to get involved if (for example) I heard the kids ask my wife a question I knew the answer to.

• Obviously my wife's support and understanding was crucial. She had to take my “office” as seriously as the kids and I did. For my part, I made a point of acknowledging that, in taking on extra parenting duties, she was working as hard on my book as I was. I also made sure to understand her work needs so that I could "come home from the office" (take off my hat) at the times she couldn't be distracted.

• Unless it was absolutely necessary for my family’s safety or survival, I did not attempt to accomplish anything other than writing my book.

• I gave myself time off after each book. Research shows that you can work crazy hours for at most two months before it starts to severely impair your efficiency. Since you've got four months, I'd advise you to build in rest time for yourself. Build rest time into every day and at least one full rest day into every week. And maybe take a week off after you finish your outline and before you start the text? If you try to work every waking hour seven days a week for four months, you will end up accomplishing less than if you build in recuperation time.

• As the parent of two kids, I will warn you that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Each kid brings their own personality and their own needs. By all means, make plans based on the lessons you learned when your first was a newborn, but be prepared to shred them if Number Two ends up being a different person.

• You say you are “signing on” to write this book. If that means you’ve signed a contract with a publisher, I’ll add the following two bits of advice. First, within reason, most editors understand that deadlines slip. A solid manuscript handed in two or three weeks late is generally better than a total mess handed in on the due date. In certain cases, some editors may even be willing to push deadlines by months or even years, although obviously that’s something you want to avoid if humanly possible. Second, because you will be writing this book on Hard Mode, you need to know there’s a non-zero possibility you’ll simply be unable to finish it— which could potentially mean returning your advance. If it’s at all possible, don’t spend a penny of your advance until your book is in your editor’s hands.

• I won’t repeat the warnings you’ve already gotten in this thread. You’ve explicitly said you want to do this and you’re not looking to be discouraged. But I will gently note that you are setting a challenging task for yourself. I hope you kick this book’s butt and get everything you want out of this experience! But if not, I hope you will be kind to yourself when you judge what you have accomplished, whether it is at the end of a day or at the end of four months.

Good luck!
posted by yankeefog at 3:28 AM on June 16, 2022 [5 favorites]

Consider voice to text if you're planning on breastfeeding. My second was a slow as fuck feeder and we'd sit around for hours at a time. Dictating quietly while your hands are busy may be a way to keep your flow.
posted by Jilder at 3:35 AM on June 16, 2022 [2 favorites]

Similar to the previous comment, if you end up with a baby who likes a contact nap, can you write or edit on your phone?

And if you’re breaking it down into daily and weekly goals like other folks recommended, I’d skip the first two-three weeks in the calculations, and then if you are able to get anything done in those weeks it’s gravy.
posted by songs about trains at 7:27 PM on June 16, 2022

I started working from home when my newborn was 2 weeks old and exclusively breastfed. Here's how I maximized my work periods.

Consider working from the sofa, not the desk. Sit with your legs out (so, on a chaise, or sideways). I couldn't have concentrated sitting on a proper chair, my body would not have permitted it.

When you're working, when the baby needs food, all you do is nurse. None of the adjacent tasks. You don't change the diaper, don't rock the baby, don't burp the baby, don't even stand up, walk to the crib, and put the baby down in the crib.

When the baby cries, the helper fetches them, soothes them, changes their diaper. Then they bring you a clean hungry, hopefully fairly calm baby, along with a large glass of water and a one-handed healthy snack (granola bar + bowl of strawberries, cheese and crackers, apple slices, half-peeled banana, etc).

You sit on the sofa and get your boob out. Helper hands you the baby, lets you latch baby, then hands you the snack. (Have a convenient table very close to the sofa so baby isn't ripping your boob off when you contort to reach something). Helper rmoves your dirty dishes from the last snack. You nurse til baby is full, while you drink and eat. You have a sense of how long this takes (or time it every two weeks and keep track). In exactly X minutes, the helper comes back. You, still sitting, hand the sleepy baby back to them, and finish your snack, then get right back to work.

The helper quietly takes baby into the nursery, burps baby, rocks baby, puts baby down. Your nursing time is thus cut down tremendously because you're not trying to change a diaper and get a baby to sleep. Plus you got a healthy snack and water each time. Now you go pee and get back to work.

Plan the snacks ahead of time, have a list. Don't have Helper ask you what snack you want. Their job is just to make a snack from the list. Minimize conversation and decisions and politeness. Let them know you don't have energy to talk, you'll just eat what they bring you.

If you're back on caffiene, time it carefully for maximum effect. Remember breastfeeding makes you sleepy. I typically had a small amount of caffeine during every nursing session to try to combat the sleepiness, totalling about 1 tea and 1 coffee per day.

Also, get HUGE earmuffs. The kind they wear on gun ranges. Wear them when working. The goal is not to hear a thing. Baby crying is not your problem until it's time for the next feed. Good luck!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:07 PM on June 19, 2022

Response by poster: Hi everyone! Here with an update.

I wrote the book. 55,000 words. I go back to work this Friday.

Those of you who took me at my word gave wonderful advice, and I'd love to share for future readers of the thread's sake what specifically worked for me:

- Like with my first kiddo, I emphasized sleep hygiene and also got a great luck of the draw, as my kiddo was a fairly good sleeper. I relied on daytime naps during the weekdays to get most of the writing done.
- I gave up breastfeeding about two months in for a variety of reasons, but also because it definitely was a lot. A hands-free pump was pretty spectacular before that, though!
- I ignored laundry, dishes, and cooking (and showers!) most of the time. This was a previous agreement with my husband in that these things could fall by the wayside, since I would be prioritizing book and family time.
- When I wrote, I WROTE. Kid went to bed, I dropped it all and began, without fail. Constantly maintained that if I had any moment of free time, it was spent writing. I also set word count math goals as suggested above, which helped guide the process.
- When I spent time with my toddler, especially, and my more "awake" baby in latter weeks, I was fully on. It was super important that I wasn't doing either half-assed.
- I outlined the shit out of my book, which was magnificent for making the writing process a breeze.
- I also, as discussed above, tried to write some of the 'harder' chapters earlier, so I wouldn't be left with all of the terrible ones at the end.
- I had helpers in the form of my husband doing tasks around the house, and occasionally removing both kids from the house on the weekends so I could dedicate some time, as well as my parents coming over I'd say one day out of every other week to help watch the baby for a few hours while I dedicated the time to writing.
- Most importantly, I feel, is that I knew I could do this, and I committed to doing it. End of story -- I made it happen. It was a mindset thing, and I thoroughly enjoyed the project while honestly not feeling like I stole time away from my child. The biggest downside, other than not catching up on Netflix, was that I spent a LOT of money on takeout food. But hell, it was worth it.

Thank you so much to your amazing responses!
posted by knownassociate at 10:50 AM on November 1, 2022 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: (also, a note for all of the new parents: I forgot to mention that I would not have done this had it not been my second go-round with parenting! My brother had his first kiddo about three weeks after me and it reminded me so much of how different and all-consuming it all is the first time. This time around, I felt that even if my kiddo was a very different person than the first -- and she was! -- my brain already had that "parenting" feature constantly turned on in the background, so I was adjusted to the basics of what was going on... whereas the first time my entire life and brain was being rewired in real-time. Best of luck to anyone reading this in the future <3)
posted by knownassociate at 12:23 PM on November 1, 2022

posted by cocoagirl at 5:04 PM on November 1, 2022

Congratulations! Finishing a book is a major accomplishment in any circumstance but it's especially impressive with a newborn! And thanks for the update-- I'm really glad to hear that you got everything you wanted out of the experience.
posted by yankeefog at 3:00 AM on November 2, 2022

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